School closures creating challenges
While the recent string of school closures due to frigid temperatures may have been a nice surprise for some students, it was an unwelcome disruption for teachers and district officials.
“At all costs, I’d like to keep our buildings open so we have our kids,” District 833 Superintendent Keith Jacobus said. “We never want to miss any time, but this has been a very unique winter with months remaining.
“It is extremely difficult to close school when we are aware that staff and students both want to be at school. With that said though, we cannot neglect safety concerns.”
District 833 leaders decided to close all buildings Jan. 27-28 in anticipation of extremely cold temperatures, with severe wind chills.
Last week’s closures followed one from the previous week and two earlier in January bringing the total number so far to five this school year.
The Minnesota Department of Education requires 1,020 hours of instruction time.
With the fifth day of school cancellation, District 833 has not met the minimum number of hours of instructional time, which means that District 833 could see an additional day of school.
“We want to squeeze as much time in with our students as we can,” Jacobus said.
District 833 has four extra school days built into its schedule.
Criteria for closure
When it comes to deciding to close school, whether that is for snow or for cold, Jacobus said there is not a specific threshold, but rather a lot of criteria.
For snow-related closures, the district considers whether or not buses can get to their routes safely and timely and if walkers have a safe way to school. Lost school instruction is also factored into the equation.
When deciding whether or not to close school due to cold, the district considers whether or not buses will start, if fuel-line freezing might occur and what dangers the temperatures may pose to students.
“The first and foremost and only thing we can consider is can we get our kids safely to school,” Jacobus said.
Disruption in the classroom
Even though closing school means keeping students safe, it also means there are bound to be disruptions and delays within the classroom.
“It certainly disrupts teachers’ plans,” Jacobus said, “and the pace gets disrupted.”
East Ridge High School social studies teachers Cindy Schroeder said she has already lost one entire unit from the year, and that’s if there aren’t any additional closures.
“I will have to sacrifice at least one unit once school is done since the time will just be gone,” she said. ”You want me to give them a grade, but they haven’t met what the Legislature intended them to do. “But, I’m glad that the kids are safe.”
United Teachers of South Washington County President Tom McCarthy said it’s always difficult on teachers when they can’t be in front of students teaching the material that needs to be learned.
“Time away from class, especially in one trimester, is difficult,” the Park High School English teacher said. “Anytime we have time off, without student contact, we spend a lot of time making up learning we’ve lost.”
However, both Schroeder and McCarthy said handling school closures is easier now with the help of technology, so students are able to stay connected and caught up.
“We are able to continue some degree of learning,” McCarthy said, “but it may not be the quality you have when you have a discussion in the classroom.”
Schroeder said connecting with students and keeping them on track can be difficult with students whose hearts just aren’t into the subject.
“Since their heart really isn’t in it,” she said, “this is just another opportunity to slide.”
Even though school closures can be challenging for teachers, Jacobus said he doesn’t see it as anything different than absences.
“Kids might be sick for five days and we’re able to keep them going,” he said. “Good teachers have the ability to work within those disruptions and keep our kids moving forward.
“These are things that can be overcome.”
Schroeder said there is a silver lining to the school closures because the teachers, who continued working during the closures, were able to brainstorm and develop better curriculum.
“It’s really nice to have some extra time with my team to take our time and look at how students are doing,” she said. “We can make it more interesting and exciting for them. But I need to have my kids back.”
Whereas teachers face challenges with keeping up with their lessons, parents also face difficulties when working parents have to figure out who is going to take care of their children.
“Anytime you close, there’s going to be people frustrated with you,” Jacobus said. “It’s tough for a parent to find out that and change up their routine.”
Even though Jacobus said he heard some negative comments from parents, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
“I feel very proud of our community that they understood the difficulty when it gets that cold,” he said. “I don’t discount the people that are upset though.”
Longer school year?
Jacobus said District 833 School Board will be meeting this Thursday to discuss how to address the one missed day that put them over the maximum.
Even though MDE has a requirement for instructional time, the decision on whether or not to make that up is left to the district.
Some of the possible options, McCarthy and Jacobus said, would be to tack on an extra day at the end of the school year, to use a teacher work day for an instructional day or to add additional hours to several days.
Schroeder said she doesn’t see any benefit to adding an extra day to the school year.
“It won’t be any assistance to us because giving me one day isn’t going to give me that lesson back,” she said.
Currently, there are not any issues with teachers working beyond their contracted hours, but if any further school closures occur that could be an issue, MccCarthy said.
“Because teachers have had one day off and students have had five days off,” he said, “you come into an interesting scenario.”
Jacobus said he is hopeful there won’t be any other closings this school year, but there is always a chance.
“Our community realized that this is a unique winter and it’s going to be tough to get through, but if we stick together we can get through it,” he said.
Even though closing five days within a month can be frustrating, McCarthy said it’s not unexpected.
“We live in Minnesota, so it’s something that we need to be able to accommodate,” he said. “The weather is the weather. But, we would be very comfortable if we didn’t have to close again for the rest of the year.”